Listeria in caramel apples changes apple safety focus

Chuck Robinson of Produce Retailer writes the Listeria outbreak connected to caramel apples in late 2014 and early 2015 gave the produce industry a slap to remind it to remain vigilant about food safety.

caramel.appleDiscussion of the outbreak dominated the first day of the seventh annual Center for Produce Safety Research Symposium on June 28-29.

That outbreak was traced to one apple supplier, Bidart Bros., Bakersfield, Calif. Only commercially produced, prepackaged whole caramel apples were involved.

There were 35 people from 12 states reported infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seven of them died before the case was closed, three of them linked to listeriosis.

Since the outbreak, the apple industry has changed focus from E. coli and compliance with Food Safety Modernization Act regulations to address listeria’s threat to the industry, said Ines Hanrahan, project manager for the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Wenatchee.

In general, more attention to details is required to maintain sanitation, she said, including getting rid of standing water and daily cleaning zones that come into contact with food. Brushes need to be cleaned more frequently and dunk tanks must be cleaned and the water changed more often.

The stronger focus requires bigger cleaning crews and more time allotted to cleaning, she said. Training and rewards for improvement also are demanded.

“It’s about the people cleaning the brushes every day understanding why they are cleaning the brushes,” Hanrahan said.

The advent of whole genome sequencing, which provides more detailed and precise data for identifying outbreaks than the current standard technique, will mean more outbreaks will be detected, warned Martin Wiedmann, a food safety professor for Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. The produce industry must be prepared.

As the caramel apple-linked outbreak shows, the industry should realize what is happening in the field is of secondary importance, he said.

“I think we need to focus on our processing and packing facilities,” Wiedmann said.

There were many reasons at the outset of the investigation to not expect apples to be the outbreak source, said Kathleen Glass, associate director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Reasons include the fact that the apples were sanitized and then dipped in hot caramel, which would seem likely to kill listeria. Also, the fruit is acidic, which would discourage listeria growth.

“You put all these factor together, and you don’t think apples are going to be a likely source of Listeria monocytogenes,” Glass said.”

However, the stems and calyxes of the fruit can harbor listeria, and pushing wooden stick through the calyx into the core also pushed listeria there.

“I’m really kind of surprised we hadn’t seen this sort of problem before,” Glass said.

Pat Kennelly, chief of the food safety section of the food and drug branch of California Department of Public Health, said problems were widespread at the Bidart Bros. packing facility. His staff’s investigation began well after the facility had closed operations for the season on Oct. 31.

“Given the level of contamination we found a month after operations had ceased, I can’t imagine what we would have found if we had tested when it was in operation,” Kennelly said.

7 dead, 28 sick including a ‘fetal loss’ Listeria in apples, who knew?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports, this outbreak appears to be over. However, recalled products may still be in people’s homes. Consumers unaware of the recalls could continue to eat the products and get sick.

apples-granny-smith-165384On January 6, 2015, Bidart Bros. of Bakersfield, California voluntarily recalled Granny Smith and Gala apples because environmental testing revealed contamination with Listeria monocytogenes at the firm’s apple-packing facility.

On January 18, 2015, FDA laboratory analyses using whole genome sequencing (WGS) showed that these Listeria isolates were highly related to the outbreak strains.

Happy Apples, California Snack Foods, and Merb’s Candies each announced a voluntary recall of commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples.

A total of 35 people infected with the outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes were reported from 12 states.

Of these, 34 people were hospitalized. Listeriosis contributed to at least three of the seven deaths reported.

Eleven illnesses were pregnancy-related (occurred in a pregnant woman or her newborn infant), with one illness resulting in a fetal loss (A fetal loss? Who writes this stuff?).

Three invasive illnesses (meningitis) were among otherwise healthy children aged 5–15 years.

Twenty-eight (90%) of the 31 ill people interviewed reported eating commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples before becoming ill.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) identified one case of listeriosis in Canada that is genetically related to the U.S. outbreak.

7 dead, 34 sick from Listeria: US apple industry works to limit recall damage

The Listeria outbreak that lead Bidart Bros. to recall of all of its granny smiths and galas spurred industry representatives to travel to Washington D.C. for damage control meetings recently, writes Coral Beach of The Packer.

apples-granny-smith-165384Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission, said he and officials from other apple organizations met with members of Congress the last week of January. They also met with people at the Food and Drug Administration, Commerce Department, U.S. Trade Representative office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

One concern Ott said they discussed with FDA officials is how the agency shares — and does not share — information after a recall is announced.

“They are quick to send out initial information,” Ott said, “but they aren’t so quick with the follow ups.”

Ott said the FDA’s “no comment” policy during investigations fans the flames of media hysteria like that seen in Malaysia and other Asian countries, which have enacted restrictions on U.S. apples not included in the recall.

FDA spokesman Doug Karas said the agency has made it clear the recall related to the listeria outbreak involves only galas and granny smiths from Bidart Bros., Shafter, Calif. Seven people who were infected with the outbreak strains of listeria have died.

The outbreak has sickened 32 people in 11 states, with 31 of them requiring hospitalization, according to the most recent update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 10. Canadian officials report two people there have been confirmed with the outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes.

Jim Bair, president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., said the organization is looking forward while waiting on final reports from FDA and CDC.

gala.apples“(We have) already begun looking forward to next steps and what our industry can do to prevent further instances,” Bair said. “We are considering what measures we can take to best serve the industry in providing relevant information to prevent future concerns.”

Officials with apple organizations in New York and Michigan either declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

7 dead, 28 sick: Listeria tainted apples appear in Thailand, no ban

Thai authorities have confirmed the existence of listeriosis-associated apples imported from the U.S. to Thailand, advising the public to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before consumption.

caramel.appleThe Director-General of the Department of Medical Science (DMSC) Apichai Mongkol have addressed the warning issued from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the recall of the apples from Bidart Bros. as the FDA have confirmed a contamination of Listeria in the apples.

Produce contaminated by Listeriosis have been confirmed in Thailand at the Laem Chabang port in Rayong province through a cargo vessel, as warned in the FDA’s document.

Two strains of Listeria monocytogenes were confirmed in the Bidart Bros apple processing plant near Bakersfield, California, the FDA said.

“Those same strains were also found in Bidart Bros. apples collected from a retailer,” the FDA said in a statement on Friday.